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Bloom Of Doom: Predicting Toxic Algal Blooms Before They Happen

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Researchers have recently discovered the presence of an algae known as Pseudo-nitzschia growing in large numbers in Monterey Bay. To ensure the algal bloom does not gravely affect seabirds and marine mammals in the area, the researchers monitoring the situation, which also gave rise to the opportunity to develop predictive models that can be used to forecast when and where blooms will take place.

Led by Raphael Kudela, an ocean sciences professor from the University of California Santa Cruz, researchers have been working with the Central and Northern California Observing System, running a model to come up with forecasts for the entire Californian coast. Thanks to funding from NASA, the predictive models are underway and can be accessed online via the CeNCOOS.

Within the next three years, Kudela's team will be handing over the model to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which will be using the National Weather Service's supercomputers to operate them.

"So far, it's been very good at picking regional patterns," said Kudela, adding that coupled with weather models, theirs can forecast what will likely happen within the next three days.

Pseudo-nitzschia produce a deadly neurotoxin known as domoic acid. When the researchers started picking up the presence of domoic acid in Monterey Bay last May, the model they made predicted that an algal bloom will take place in the coastal waters close to Northern California's Humboldt Bay.

Clarissa Andersen, the lead on the work on predictive modeling, happened to be in the area to give a talk. She got local researchers to take samples to be tested and Kudela's group confirmed that domoic acid was present in Humboldt Bay.

Pseudo-nitzschia has been blooming periodically for more than 25 years not just in Monterey Bay but in other parts of the United States. When blooms are large enough, domoic acid accumulates in small fish and shellfish, recording a spike in deaths in fish poisoned after eating smaller fish that have been contaminated and prompting fisheries to be closed.

According to monitoring data, the current bloom is massive, with levels of domoic acid in Monterey Bay extremely high. Given the size of the bloom, it has been detected as far as Washington state. Kudela said the algal bloom is starting to take shape as not only the most toxic but also the largest the country has seen in at least 10 years.

Photo: Steve Jurvetson | Flickr

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